Ever since the home video market was effectively born in 1977 with the launch of the VHS player and the release of The Sound of Music, M*A*S*H, and Patton, people have been eager to watch movies at home as soon after they appear in movie theaters as possible. While it used to take months or even years for a film to see a home release, the theatrical window has been increasingly shrinking.
Movies now typically play exclusively in the theater for a month or so before going to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) services such as pay-per-view or airlines, then to an online digital release such as Kaleidescape or Vudu, then a disc release about 14 weeks after the theatrical run, then to home video services like HBO a couple of months later, and then finally to non-pay TV services. For example, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part was released theatrically on February 8 2019, and was released for digital download on April 16, with the disc release scheduled to arrive on May 7.
But these shrinking release windows still haven’t been enough to satisfy the desire to see movies soon after they’re released in theaters. The biggest thing keeping windows from getting even shorter is the delicate relationship between the movie studios and the theater owners. Studios make millions—sometimes billions—from the main commercial release, and they don’t want to do anything that might hurt the goose that lays their biggest golden egg. Regardless, a few companies have been working hard to have movies available at home the day they’re released.
Bel Air Circuit
At the top of the pyramid is the Bel Air Circuit—an invitation-only group of individuals consisting mainly of Hollywood A-list actors, directors, producers, and studio executives who receive just-released movies to enjoy in their personal screening rooms. While this used to require delivering film reels via courier and having a projectionist on site to handle
the reel-changing chores, members now receive the same digital files sent to commercial theaters. The upside is that most studios make their films available for viewing to Circuit members at no charge. The downside is that unless your name is Spielberg, Tarantino, Stallone, or Cruise, you won’t ever be invited to join.
Bel Air Cinema
Very similar in concept to the Bel Air Circuit is Bel Air Cinema. The biggest difference is that unlike an invitation-only, private club comprised of a Hollywood who’s who, anyone with a big enough checkbook can inquire about becoming a customer.
But your regular home theater need not apply. In fact, even high-end, luxury home theaters aren’t compatible, because Bel Air Cinema is less about home theater and more about creating a commercial theater in your home. That requires a Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI)-compliant projector and movie server costing $100,000 or more. (Feel free to read the latest Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.3—it’s only 155 pages.) And expect to shell out $5,000 or more for the privilege of watching a film, plus annual fees.
The first company to make a real go of the day-and-date concept was Prima Cinema. Launched in 2012, with financial backing from companies including Universal Pictures, Best Buy, and IMAX, Prima lets you watch movies at home the day they hit the theaters.
Unlike the Bel Air systems, Prima’s hardware works with any home theater technology, providing an HDMI output that can be connected to any brand of AV receiver or processor and any TV or projector. The system includes a massive array of security features, including accelerometers to prevent moving the hardware, unique watermarking for every viewing, and a fingerprint scanner with “liveness” detector.
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Prima initially had agreements with just Universal, Lionsgate, Focus Features, Cinedigm, and Magnolia. But after a couple of years in operation, this list expanded to include Paramount, The Weinstein Company, Relativity EuropaCorp, Roadside Attractions, Gravitas Ventures, Samuel Goldwyn Films, IFC Films, and Open Road, meaning a far larger number of titles was available for viewing.
But Prima isn’t cheap. The hardware alone costs $35,000, with movies running $500 per viewing. I have the unique experience of having been the only reviewer to live with Prima—not once, but twice—so I was able to experience the system
firsthand. And I can confirm it has a wonderful interface for browsing and choosing movies, and delivers pictures in beautiful, better-than-Blu-ray 4:2:2, 10-bit quality.
Unfortunately, around 2016, Prima seemed to fall off the map. Movies stopped downloading, and dealers couldn’t get a hold of the company. Prior to this post, I reached out to a new contact listed on the company’s redesigned webpage: Richard Jenkins, Head of Content. According to Jenkins, “We are still operating and hoping to close our current
investment round by the end of June; once new funding is in place we will then be making an announcement in early July, so please standby—we will update you as soon as we can.”
Red Carpet Home Cinema
Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a story heralding the launch of a brand new company in this space: Red Carpet Home Cinema—the brainchild of Fred Rosen, the man behind Ticketmaster, and Dan Fellman, past president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. Red Carpet is more Prima Cinema (of which Rosen sat on the board of advisors) than Bel Air Cinema since it will work with any traditional AV system but requires a $15,000 piece of proprietary hardware (loaded with security provisions to keep Hollywood content safe from piracy). According to the site’s FAQ, “Movies will be variably priced with the most current films in the low thousands—no movie will be priced below $500.” The Times article mentioned that films will cost $1,500 to $3,000, which will include two viewings within a 36-hour period.
I recently spoke to Mr. Rosen, and found him incredibly forthcoming and straightforward about his new company’s plans. He repeatedly said Red Carpet isn’t looking to disrupt the current cinema model, but rather wants to provide a luxury option for
Red Carpet Home Cinema co-founder Fred Rosen
home viewing to people willing to pay for it.
Rosen said: “We asked the studios, ‘What will it take to make this happen? You set the price and terms.’ The studios said I was the first guy to come in and not try to tell them what they could charge, not tell them how it was going to be.”
Red Carpet lists studio support from 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and Annapurna, with five titles currently available for viewing: Pet Sematary, Missing
Link, Hellboy, The Curse of La Llorona, and Shazam! But Rosen says he feels pretty comfortable they’ll be able to add more studio partners.
“This is a luxury product, of something that is very limited and difficult to get,” he said, “and our customers are willing to pay for the convenience and privilege.” The company isn’t looking for mass sales, but would like to sign up a limited number of affluent clients, saying it would be happy to have hundreds of members in New York and LA, and about a hundred more in each of the largest cities throughout the US.
Rosen said there are luxury options available for virtually every other kind of product or service, and Red Carpet wants to provide athletes, movie stars, and just “regular” wealthy people with the freedom to consume content when and how they want. “If a kid can watch a movie on their phone 90 days after it is released for $.99, why can’t there be an early option for the luxury market that is willing to pay for it?”
According to Rosen, people last year spent $70 billion on private planes and $60 billion on private yachts. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad, it just is what it is. And if those people want to spend $3,000 to watch a movie in the privacy of their own home, why shouldn’t they have that as an option like any other luxury purchase?”
Red Carpet is currently in beta, with several systems installed in both New York and California. When I asked Rosen when the service would come out of beta, he said, “As soon as we make a sale! It’s ready to go now.” For those with the means, Red Carpet Home Cinema is available now throughout the country.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about the current status of the much-hyped day-and-date startup The Screening Room, and provide an update on Xcinex, which plans to sell its hardware for a mass-market-friendly $30 and charge for viewings based on the number of people in the room, like at a movie theater.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.